When University of Montana student Rachel Marcinek received a message from a Missoula County sheriff’s deputy on her MySpace web page last January, she thought twice about responding to his “friend request.”
“I don’t add people that I don’t know,” the 19-year-old says of her standard personal policy on the popular social network site.
Nonetheless, she was curious and clicked on Sgt. Ty Evenson’s MySpace profile where she read that he was looking “to improve relations between law enforcement and the public.”
“I figured I had a couple of traffic questions I could ask him so I went ahead and added him,” Marcinek says, noting that she made—for the first time—an exception to her “no strangers” rule.
That decision eventually led to Marcinek’s photo appearing on the evening news and the former Hellgate High School student becoming the subject of a complicated legal question dealing with online privacy. The problem surfaced about a month after Marcinek added Evenson to her “friends” list when she was working late at her job at a local hotel.
“My supervisor tells me that this guy who I was talking to on MySpace just got fired and it’s all over the news,” Marcinek recalls. “Then he mentioned that my picture had been on the news.”
Marcinek says her phone rang all night as coworkers and friends called to tell her that they had seen her photo on KECI-TV’s broadcast, detailing how Evenson was fired for initiating sexually explicit conversations on MySpace using a county-owned computer.
“A lot of people saw my picture on TV,” Marcinek says of the 10 p.m. broadcast. “I received probably 30 calls that night.”
Of particular concern to Marcinek was the fact her picture appeared on-screen at the same time a news reporter explained Evenson was contacting “prostitutes, strippers and porn stars.”
“Basically the reporter is talking about Evenson targeting prostitutes, strippers and porn stars and then it scrolls through [Evenson’s MySpace] page and comes to rest on my picture, where it stays for about 10 seconds,” Marcinek says, emphatically pointing out that she is not a prostitute, stripper or porn star.
On March 22, Marcinek, through an ASUM Legal Services attorney, sent a letter to KECI demanding that the station cease using her picture or name in future broadcasts. According to the letter, the way in which KECI presented Marcinek’s photo violated her privacy rights and defamed Marcinek by portraying the 19-year-old college student in a “false light.” (KECI officials did not respond to numerous requests for comment for this story.)
According to Marcinek’s attorney, Anne Hamilton, KECI’s portrayal of Evenson’s MySpace page implies that Marcinek “is one of the above category of persons” when the reporter “knew, or could easily have ascertained that she is not.”
“As a result of your portrayal, Ms. Marcinek has been held up to ridicule, jokes, unwanted advances, humiliation and scorn. She has been deeply embarrassed and suffered emotional trauma,” Hamilton’s letter to KECI states.
Marcinek says that since the broadcast aired two weeks ago, she’s received phone calls from friends going to college in other parts of the country whose parents saw the report and passed on the story.
“I’ve had friends I haven’t talked to for three or four months saying, ‘Is this what’s really happening? Are you a stripper now?’ And I tell them, ‘No, I’m not a stripper, but thanks for checking,’” Marcinek says.
Jed Liston, UM’s assistant vice president of enrollment services, says university officials are increasingly warning incoming students to be careful about divulging personal information on popular social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook, two websites that allow people to create personal Web pages and exchange information like photos, e-mail and videos.
“Much like we urge them to lock their doors to their dorm room for their own safety, we urge them not to put personal information on social networking sites,” Liston says. “Or if they do, keep it set to private so that only invited friends can see that information.”
But even people who don’t publish or exchange personal information online could be putting their privacy at risk in ways they may have never thought of, says Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest research center.
“Information can be used for ways not initially intended,” says Coney, who notes that in the digital age, information has a long shelf life and can be duplicated, shared and stored in a myriad of ways the creator never intended. “The privacy agreements that are out there don’t provide irrevocable guarantees that information will be kept private.”
Since the news of Evenson’s firing Marcinek has tried to remove her picture from the former officer’s MySpace page, which, as of press time, was still online.
“I’m not able to delete him as a friend,” Marcinek says.
So, for the time being, Marcinek remains digitally connected to the fired officer who was characterized by his boss, Sheriff Mike McMeekin, as having a “documented pattern of activity more closely resembl[ing] that of a sexual predator than of a deputy sheriff.”
Marcinek says she doesn’t plan to pursue legal action against KECI if the station agrees to stop airing her photo and name. In the meantime she’s hoping her experience will help teach others a valuable lesson.
“Before this all happened I didn’t add anyone that I didn’t know….” Marcinek says. “My mistake at the time was I thought he was okay because he was a cop. I made an exception. There will be no more exceptions.”